Padecky: Sparrow stands tall among other runners

By BOB PADECKY
PRESS DEMOCRAT SPORTS COLUMNIST

Back on Sept.10, in his first cross country meet, at Fresno City College, Chris Sparrow of Santa Rosa JC stepped among the 207 other junior college runners near the start line. At that time the legend that is Chris Sparrow was in its infancy, largely an unknown was he. But he attracted attention nonetheless. People gawked and stared and snickered and Sparrow, who has become very good at this, shrugged.

“I don’t care if I stand out,” the Analy graduate said.

But Sparrow is not an ice cube. As he stood there in Fresno he felt the eyes, looked at the eyes, saw the meaning behind those eyes.

“I was getting that look,” he said. “They were thinking, ‘Is this a joke? Are you kidding me? Is he really going to race?’”

Sparrow stiffened, rose straight and tall, all the way to his maximum height of 4-foot-6. I ain’t no joke, he was thinking to himself. And then he took off.

His coach, J.J. Noble, was off to the side and had a reaction he has had at the start of each of the five races Sparrow has run.

“I was on the verge of tears,” said Noble, a man who can appreciate effort, courage and commitment. He was the NCAA Division II national champion in the decathlon in 2001. What he saw was someone who was thumbing his nose at convention. People like Sparrow who are members of the Dwarf Athletic Association of America don’t populate college sports. In fact, both Noble and Sparrow believe there are no other examples.

Sparrow’s story is his and his alone and on that day in Fresno The Legend That Is Chris Sparrow began. Sparrow finished ahead of 12 runners. That he placed 196th is almost a useless footnote.

“My goal is not to quit and to not finish last,” the freshman said. In SRJC’s five meets thus far — and there’s another one today at Spring Lake — Sparrow has finished last in just one of them. Counting the dozen he beat in Fresno, Sparrow has finished ahead of 20 runners thus far. The word is out.

“Coaches will approach me before a meet,” Noble said, “and ask, ‘Is Chris running today?’ That’s the first time that’s ever happened in my coaching career. At each of our meets Chris is the one who gets as loud a cheer as anyone else.”

Unless you have ice cubes for a heartbeat, how do you not root for Sparrow? His story is obvious just by noticing him for the first time. Even the most disinterested and unknowledgeable of fans can recognize Sparrow’s challenge. Sparrow takes 3½ strides for every one that team captain Eli Stephenson takes. Noble and his staff did some calculation and that’s roughly 8,169 strides for Sparrow to run four miles. One has to be in better-than-average shape to make that physical commitment.

“That’s astonishing,” said Stephenson, a Maria Carrillo graduate. “He really pumps those things (legs). And what runners don’t know, until it’s too late, is Chris is stalking them and he likes that.”

Because he needs to take so many steps to run cross country, Sparrow’s pace doesn’t change. He is a metronome. Over and over, the same distance covered again and again. So when a race begins he is immediately last. But as the miles wear on, Sparrow gets closer and closer. And his footsteps get louder and louder. It goes without saying but needs to be said nonetheless, runners a foot taller or more don’t like to be beaten by someone who is 4-foot-6.

In Modesto last Friday it was never more obvious.

“I was running with this guy from West Hills and I could tell he wanted to stay ahead of me,” Sparrow said. “So every time he heard my footsteps or looked over his shoulder to see me coming, he’d speed up ahead of me. He did this at least four times. But by the end of the race he wore himself out and I passed him.”

When the Modesto Pirate Invitational was over, the coach for West Hills sought out Sparrow to congratulate him. Sparrow had beaten three of his guys. That may have been the first time in recorded track history a runner received a handshake and words of praise for finishing 63rd.

“I kept telling coaches Chris is a trailblazer,” Noble said.

The trailblazer shows what can be done. The trailblazer who is 4-foot-6 doesn’t let other people define him. He does that for himself. He never ran that much, became interested only last spring after taking an advanced class in track. Oh, what the heck, he thought. He asked Noble for a tryout. Showed he wasn’t a joke and was in shape. And then last Friday, Sparrow ran his fastest four miles of the season, a 7:18 average mile.

To the cheers of friends and foe alike. At practice Thursday at Bailey Field, the team built a pyramid with Sparrow on top. He is one of them. They treat him no differently than anyone else except when it comes to building a pyramid. He’s the cherry on top and he embraces their affection and trust.

“Chris wore his T-shirt at practice for the first two weeks of the season,” Noble said. “Then he took it off. He’s proud of his body. He’s proud of himself. He should be.”

For more North Bay sports go to Bob Padecky’s blog at padecky.blogs.pressdemocrat.com. You can reach Staff Columnist Bob Padecky at 521-5223 or bob.padecky@pressdemocrat.com.